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When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
When I shared my story of leaving dance because of untreated depression a few weeks ago, I had no idea what the response would be. In truth, it took me several days just to hit "send" and give the words to my editor. I was overwhelmed by your response—the kind words, the calls for action and the sharing of your own stories. I read every comment and share that I could see.
But as much as the camaraderie of other dancers served to validate my experience, they also shook me to the bone. How tragic that this is common and so widely felt.
Your voices are undeniably being heard, and Dance Magazine wants to hear more. If you are a current dancer, please take three minutes to fill out this survey. Share it widely and encourage others to do the same. In order to make this a movement that elicits real change, we must demonstrate the need with as many participants as possible. You will see the outcome of your responses in a future article of Dance Magazine, where I will continue to join you in this conversation. We can change this together.
Casting is being done for an upcoming show, and your mom just won't let up. She's in the waiting room every second you're in the studio, and you've seen her pull the director aside at least twice. She has an opinion on every dancer in your class, including you. And the weight of it all is just too much.
As a dancer with an overbearing parent, it can often feel like you are competing with their expectations in addition to every other talented student in your school. Parents should support you, but there is a line where their involvement can hurt your development and potential future in dance. Understanding their perspective will help you address the situation, and ultimately take your training into your own hands.
"So why did you quit?"
It's a question I've been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what lead me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
"I had some injures," I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, "I was just not very happy." Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: "I quit dancing because of untreated depression."
Dancers today are more diligent than ever about cross-training to keep their bodies strong and healthy. But where is the line between a dedication to exercise and a dangerous addiction?
The consequences of compulsively cross-training can be severe. These nine signs mean you might be taking it too far.
Your Muscles Are Getting Weaker:
Every time you exercise, you break down muscle tissues. This breakdown, followed by a rest period, causes the muscles to rebuild and become stronger. But if you do too much exercise and without enough rest periods (or enough nutrition), you won't get that rebuilding, says Megan Richardson, an athletic trainer specializing in dance medicine at New York University's Langone Medical Center and in private practice. “All we get is breakdown." Too much exercise means you'll actually start losing strength.
As a teenager, I had a coveted place in the highest level at San Francisco Ballet School. But every night I would sit on the roof of my apartment building, wishing the gray fog would carry me away with it. I knew that the next morning I'd have to return to the studio, and my ice bucket, to soak a fractured bone and watch my peers improve without me.
Depression is a silent struggle. There is no X-ray or blood test, so to others it can look like exhaustion, laziness or a bad attitude. According to Dr. Bonnie Robson, a psychiatrist who has worked with dancers since 1983, depression will affect nearly one in five Americans in their lifetime. But for all the nutrition, Pilates and stage-makeup seminars presented to young dancers, mental health is often the elephant in the room.
Why It Happens to Dancers
The perfectionistic drive of most dancers may make them more predisposed to depression. Dr. Brian Goonan, a psychologist who works with Houston Ballet Academy, points out that the natural progression in dance is to go from your small pond, where you are the big fish, to a bigger pond. And once you are the big fish there, you go to an even bigger pond. “So until you are the principal in the best company, you are always looking to a bigger pond," he says. Sometimes it feels like the progress just stops, which can send dancers into spirals of self-doubt. “Someone is always doing something better than you are."
Often, the onset comes after a psychological or physical loss, such as losing a part, says Robson. For dancers, injury is the most common trigger. In addition to the physical pain, and the heartbreak of missing performances, dancers are separated from their social support system if they're no longer in the studio.
Major life transitions can also put you at risk. “Most people experience their first depression in their late teens or early 20s," says Robson. For dancers, this is a time of more-competitive schools, company auditions, new jobs and relocations. You may find yourself in a strange city, managing alone for the first time.
Signs and Symptoms
One troubling symptom in dancers is fatigue. This is particularly dangerous because it puts you at a high risk for injury. Other symptoms include depressed mood, trouble concentrating, significant weight loss or gain, sleeping more or less than usual, decreased interest in dance or other activities that normally make you happy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or thoughts of suicide.
Goonan says that some of the dancers he treats for depression feel like they want to quit dance completely. This reaction is normal and does not mean that you should, or will, stop dancing. “Part of the developmental process is coming to a point where you make a conscious decision to push harder and keep dancing."
What To Do
First, reevaluate your goals, advises Goonan. Are you setting yourself up to feel like a failure? Instead of having the goal to dance in American Ballet Theatre, aim for something you have control over, like going to Pilates twice a week to increase your core strength.
Also, find mentors who can help you identify the difference between a plateau and actual limitations. If a teacher who knows you well tells you that you can do it, believe them.
Diversifying your life can also help. Find a hobby that makes you happy and nurture it. Make space for the people that you love.
Most importantly, don't be afraid to seek professional help. Ask your physical therapist or trainer if they can recommend licensed psychologists who work with dancers. You can also contact the Performing Arts Medicine Association for referrals. Goonan says that confidentiality is key: Talk to someone who is not able to share anything you say with your company or school so that you can be completely open. If your symptoms become severe, or last for an extended period of time, medication may become necessary. Being treated for depression does not mean you are weak, but it will make you stronger.
Why dancers are having their trigger points released with a needle
We are all looking for a little magic when it comes to injury prevention and recovery. So it’s no surprise that dancers, always on top of new health trends, have recently started getting into dry needling. The treatment promises instant relief to some of dance’s most nagging injuries by releasing trigger points in the muscles with a needle. But it also has medical professionals buzzing with controversy. When your physical therapist pulls out a needle, should you question whether it’s safe for you?
Dry needling uses filiform needles—the same kind as traditional acupuncture. But although the tool is the same, the approach is different. Based in ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture seeks to balance the flow of energy along pathways in the body called meridians. Dry needling, on the other hand, arose out of Western medicine in the 1940s: Dr. Janet Travell, a specialist in pain referral patterns, identified trigger points in the body that would relieve pain by releasing tension in the associated muscles. Initially she injected the trigger points with fluids such as saline. The term “dry needling” originated when she discovered that the technique had the same effect without the injection.
How It Helps
The practitioner inserts the needle using a technique that elicits a “twitch response,” an involuntary reaction in the muscle that enables it to release tension. The immediate elongation of the muscle fibers allows the muscle to relax. “When the needle taps the tight tissue, it creates a micro-trauma which brings a lot of blood to the area,” says Bianca Beldini, a licensed acupuncturist and physical therapist at Sundala Center for Wellness in New York City. “Immediately when you take the needles out, the patient’s range of motion improves and their pain decreases.” Acupuncture techniques vary, and this twitch response is not something that acupuncturists would normally go for, unless they use the trigger-point dry needling technique.
Many dancers find that the muscle release dry needling provides has dramatic results. “I have needled dancers the same day as an injury and they are able to return to rehearsal after treatment,” says Erika Johnson, director of dance medicine at Marathon Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine in Massachusetts. “This is obviously case dependent, but it’s exciting to see this trend.” While it can’t help every injury, Johnson has used dry needling on muscle strains and spasms, tendonitis, sprained ankles and many of dance’s other most common injuries.
For New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns, who has been treated by Beldini since she first joined the company in 2003, the approach combining dry needling technique with more traditional acupuncture has helped her heal faster and feel better. “If I have a strained calf, she is able to fix it within two sessions probably,” Mearns says. She admits that she was nervous about the needles at first. “But the needles are so tiny and the release that I get from them is deeper than any other therapy.”
The first time a dancer experiences this type of needling, Beldini often encourages them not to dance for the next 24 hours. This gives them a chance to find out how long they will experience soreness. “The twitch response can release a fair amount of lactic acid, so the dancer is typically quite sore after,” explains Beldini. A good practitioner will be able to perform the technique gently and minimize this soreness as they get to know your body better. Mearns can be needled by Beldini and dance pain-free the next day. In fact, during performance seasons she sees Beldini every Monday even if she’s not injured because the treatment has become so therapeutic. “It’s a process,” says Mearns, “but once you get to that place where you can really handle that deep release in your muscles, your body will be completely different.”
How to become the kind of performer audiences can’t take their eyes off of.
Lesley Rausch, here in Swan Lake, uses visualization techniques backstage. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.
After countless hours in rehearsal, the stage can sometimes feel like a foreign country. Mirrors are replaced with blackness, your periphery is filled with light, and the floors, spacing and even the rosin feel different. Suddenly the variation you’d mastered in the studio is shaky and your performance falls short of everything you’d accomplished in rehearsal.
Performing is a skill of its own, and great dancers are not always great performers. It takes a particular kind of confidence to share yourself onstage and relax into your body when the pressure is on. But by working on their performance skills, dancers can grow beyond what was possible without an audience.
Shake Your Nerves
Dancers who flourish under the spotlight typically focus on the work itself rather than outcomes like audience reactions, reviews or possible promotions. Because such results are beyond your control, fixating on them can zap your confidence and exacerbate nerves, explains Dr. Jim Taylor, psychologist and co-author of Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.
When those thoughts take over, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Demetia Hopkins-Greene practices deep breathing to calm down and slow her heart rate. “I focus on my goal for that performance: What’s my role? What am I trying to convey?” she says. She forces herself to stay in the moment and shifts her mind-set to revel in the blackness of the fourth wall, rather than worrying about all the people on the other side.
Other dancers learn to use their nerves to their advantage: If you can channel that adrenaline into controlled energy (while staying present), it can give you an extra boost. “Enjoy the butterflies,” suggests Houston Ballet II ballet master and coach Claudio Muñoz. “It’s the best part of the performance.”
Discover Your Ideal Prep
Whether you always listen to a certain song backstage or a put on a “lucky” pair of mukluks, there may be more power in your backstage routines than you think. “Great performers and athletes are meticulous in their preparation,” Taylor says. That means your makeup, hair and warm-up are all thoughtfully done on a schedule that makes you comfortable. “Consistency of preparation leads to consistency of performance,” he says.
Hopkins-Greene, here with Glenn Allen Sims in Chroma, uses the fourth wall to help her focus. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Ailey.
The trick is finding what makes you feel comfortable enough to open up and be vulnerable onstage. Dancers with an internal-focus style often need space and quiet to get into that zone—you’ll find them off in a corner with earbuds in, avoiding eye contact. But others, says Taylor, will begin to stress and self-criticize if they overthink things, so they might need to spend their prep time blasting silly pop music and laughing with friends.
Either way, get into performance mode from the moment you start warming up. “Don’t wait until you’re onstage,” says musical theater choreographer and performer Al Blackstone. “Immediately during pliés, be as present as possible, actually look at your hand, engage with the space around you, project energy. Then you won’t have to make a huge shift once it’s time to perform.”
Positive imagery should also be part of every dancer’s backstage prep. Studies have shown that visualization can have a real effect on how our muscles behave. Imagining your ideal performance can help embed it in your muscle memory before you go on. “I’ll visualize doing the steps successfully rather than focusing on the time that I fell out of the pirouette,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Lesley Rausch. During the rehearsal period, go through your choreography mentally at least three times per week so that visualization feels natural come opening night.
Watch Your Body Language
The way you hold your posture can affect how an audience perceives you on a subliminal level, says Jennie Morton, an osteopath and former dancer. For example, by curling your stomach inward while pushing your chin up in a slumping position, you are communicating that you are afraid, whether intentionally or not. Similarly, elevated shoulders or tension in the neck and arms can denote a lack of confidence. “The audience will be waiting for something to go wrong because they don’t feel comfortable watching you,” says Morton. “For an audience to connect to a performer emotionally, trust has to be established.” Of course, these postures can be a choreographic or dramatic choice. But otherwise, Morton suggests aiming for neutral alignment—particularly focusing on your pelvic position—to give your body language greater authority.
Find Your Way Into the Role
When Hopkins-Greene was cast in the title role of Matthew Rushing’s Odetta last year, she was intimidated to depict the iconic singer known as the voice of the civil rights movement. But once she found herself in the role, she shined. “I can’t be Odetta,” she says, “but I can tell you what I feel from Odetta. I can show you how I see this woman.”
Claudia Muñoz coaches dancers to approach performances the same as rehearsals. Photo by Cameron Durham, courtesy Houston Ballet Academy.
Blackstone says that performers who struggle with being expressive onstage can improve by digging even deeper into the material. “Talk to the choreographer, ask yourself questions about the character and how you want the audience to feel,” he suggests. “Performance is about communication—how can you have a great conversation if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to say?”
Based on your interpretation, discover places in the choreography to play with your energy and focus, and find those moments when you can feed off other performers onstage by making eye contact. “Take those moments when you’re not engaging straight out to the audience to look down or over your shoulder or at your partner,” says Blackstone. Not only will this give your dancing more nuance, but it will leave you more energy to give to the audience when you are sending it out in their direction.
Don’t Aim For Perfection
Because the stakes are high in performance, dancers tend to put more pressure on themselves. “When I was younger I felt this sense of needing to be perfect technically in my performance,” says Rausch. She’s not alone. But this approach can backfire, aggravating stage fright and leaving dancers unprepared to bounce back from the inevitably imperfect moments in a performance.
When coaching dancers for competition, Muñoz tells them to approach it just like they do every day in the studio. “If they’re good, they’re going to win anyway.” A performance is not the time to try for an extra rotation in your turns; simply execute what you know you can do and remain open to what comes onstage. Strive for excellence rather than perfection, advises Taylor. “Excellence still sets the bar incredibly high, but it takes away the pressure of having to be perfect.”
So what is that sparkle? The je ne sais quoi that makes certain dancers seem magical onstage? Simply put, it’s you. “The dancers that I enjoy watching the most are the ones who are very comfortable with who they are outside of the studio because they allow themselves to be that person onstage, too,” says Rausch. Watch other dancers to see what it is about their performances that you respond to. And replay videos of yourself performing to see how you’re coming across, whether you look comfortable in your own skin.
“With performers, their whole identity can be wrapped up with their label as a dancer,” says Morton. “It’s those who manage to retain their humanity, that connection with the self, that find it more natural to be expressive.” Make time for activities and friends that help you stay in touch with all the quirks and oddities that make you uniquely you. And once you’re in front of the footlights, don’t hold anything back. n
Kathleen McGuire is a contributing writer to Dance Magazine.